Mohammad ShabestariMohammad Mojtahed Shabestari is one of the world’s most important contemporary Shia clerics. In this lengthy interview with Fatma Sagir, the Iranian philosopher and theologian speaks about the complex relationship between state and religion, and about the effects of coercion and regulation in matters relating to faith. In the second part of this interview, Shabestari speaks about the compatibility of Islam and Democracy, and about how the Iranian revolution affected his philosophy.

You were in Germany between 1968–1977. You were already involved in Christian-Islamic dialogue back then at a time when such a thing wasn’t even being discussed. What memories do you have of that time?

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari: We got together at that time as Christians, Jews and Muslims to engage in interreligious dialogue. For us as Muslims this was still new, a novel experience for all of us. It made quite an impression on me. I discovered that it wasn’t enough to study one another’s sources or just simply to read things about others. These personal meetings were more important, more instructive. I have happy memories and I learned a lot from the experience.

You went from that experience back to an Iran that was undergoing some very turbulent times. You went through a lot there and decided to remain. The Islamic world claims that Islam is also political or that it could form the basis of a political system. This is a view that conflicts with how the West sees the role of the state and the belief that the state and religion should be separate. Is the situation in the Islamic world one that concerns you?

Shabestari: I understand what you are saying. It does greatly concern and worry me that there are many areas, be it in academic or political discourse, where Islam is seen more in terms of a political institution than a religion. In my opinion, Islam is a religion in every sense, not a political agenda. No, Islam is a world religion; as such it can give political impetus to Muslims today, but that is not the case with Islam only, Christianity and Judaism are also political in that sense. I see Islam as a religion with many dimensions: mystic, religious, artistic, philosophical, legal and so on. As a religion it can also provide inspiration for the creation of a fair and democratic state, but that the religion itself should constitute a political agenda, that is something that is incomprehensible to me.

Why do you think it is that this view is shared by large portions of the Islamic world, even by simple public opinion, and this has also been the reception in the West? There is the idea that an Islamic state is what is wanted and that the Koran is being used to validate this.

Shabestari: (Long pause) It could possibly be put down to the keenness of Islamic countries to modernise in the wake of their experiences with colonialism. Because this failed, however, some people have been won over to the idea that in order to preserve one’s identity it is necessary to go back to the past, to return to one’s roots, if we are to protect ourselves in a world of conflict. It is a way of thinking that I reject. If this kind of thinking means that we want to re-establish past political, social and economic systems because we have nothing new to put in their place, then I, like many others, do not accept it. If, however, a reorientation were to take place, a move towards developing political and moral principles and to erecting an appropriate contemporary state system on the basis of these principles, then I would be in favour. Many Muslims misguidedly believe that falling back on earlier systems is the best way of surviving the present.

Change, then, is necessary. On the one hand, you oppose recourse to the past. But how, then, can a change be brought about? Is a revolution a necessary prerequisite to change?

Shabestari: The first priority for the Islamic world today is that it should become aware of the present state of humanity. How can a person live today, if he does not distance himself from his earlier intellectual and spiritual roots? On the one hand, the past provides our spiritual roots, but on the other, the way of life nowadays in the modern world has changed profoundly. We must bring those two things together: living with modernity and preserving spirituality. To combine these is a crucial challenge that we have to face. But how can this be achieved? Experience has shown that revolution is not the way to do it. It can only be achieved if we have first attained a profound knowledge of the needs and of the crises affecting humanity in the present day and age and if we try to reassess and reorientate our ideas about our own past. This reorientation is a new interpretation of the past.

That means the Koran must be interpreted differently. This will require a certain amount of freedom, not only personal but spiritual freedom too. When one observes Islamic societies, their relationship to governmental authority, the question that arises is: does a lack of freedom, especially in religious matters, lead to unbelief?

Shabestari: Yes, that is a very important question. I have thought about this question in the past and have come up with an idea that could provide an answer. I believe that this new interpretation must involve the Koran and the Sunnah. According to my interpretation the Koran and Sunnah are not the sources of faith for a Muslim. You see, I believe that there is a great difference between Christianity and Islam. The Christian faith is based on Christianity’s holy book, so the interpretation of that holy book is a matter of sensitivity. Whatever one says about the book, one must be careful to avoid interpreting it in such a way as to diminish faith. I believe it to be different in the case of Islam. According to Islamic belief, every human being possesses a natural, innate ability to find the path to God. And this does not rely on revelation. It is simply because of his fitrah, his innate human nature. Revelation is an aid to finding this reasonable way to God, and a way of consolidating this knowledge of a reasonable God. The Mu’tazilis were the Islamic theologians responsible for this thesis.

I can already hear the chorus of ulema disapproval. “For heaven’s sake, they will cry when they hear you say this.

Shabestari: (Laughs) Yes, well, never mind. Many such cries have come and gone in the course of Islamic history. That does not mean that revelation is not important, what it means is that the core of Islamic faith, according to the Islamic sources themselves, exists in the relationship between a human being and God, with or without revelation. That is a very important point. A new interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah using an academic approach would not do any harm, it would reveal to us the real elements that are present in the sources of revelation, in order to strengthen these fundamental beliefs.

There are many among the ulema as well as many lay people who do not see it that way. They believe that there is compulsion in religion. The passage in the Koran that states that “there is no compulsion in religion, for example, is interpreted as being valid only in respect to non-Muslims, not to Muslims. Muslims are not permitted to change faith. The Koran is viewed as if it were a law, in particular with regard to what it has to say on marriage laws, family laws, dress codes etc. These are key issues, matters currently being debated throughout the entire world. We are really talking about three areas: politics, personal religious freedom and the right to choose one’s own lifestyle. The Islamic world, with the exception of only a few protesting voices, seems determined to hold on to particular areas where liberty, as we would define it, is lacking: the lack of freedom to change one’s faith, for example, or compulsory wearing of the veil, or the hudud punishments in Saudi Arabia, to mention only a few. This lack of freedom is backed up by verses from, and interpretations of, the Koran. I have the impression that this compulsion, this lack of freedom, creates an irreligious society, one that no longer has any sense of what religion is, treats religion with indifference.

Shabestari: That’s true. And that is just what has happened. I would like to clarify something first of all and then I will answer your question. A historical-critical approach to the sources, one that deals with the Koran and Sunnah in an academic way, does not harm faith. Unfortunately, in the course of Islamic history, a negative, injurious and distorting influence on the Islamic faith has, I believe, been exercised for political reasons. During the time of the Prophet, faith alone was important, the belief in God, life with God, the praise of God, those were the important things. These are of course the main elements of religion. The other things such as how women should veil themselves – well, of course, there is no mention of wearing of veils in the Koran. There is an expression in the Koran that says that one should keep a dignified appearance. That refers to a way of life for a particular society and the Prophet’s precepts were intended to be appropriate for that society at that time. But that does not mean that these precepts with regard to ritual or the other points mentioned belong to the core of the faith. Over time, for political reasons, especially during the Abbasid period, a clear distortion occurred. The idea of faith as a way of life declined and it was the formal rules that began to be seen as the essential core of Islam. The Abbasid dynasty encouraged this as a way of legitimising their rule. This legitimisation process depended on laws, which for them became an indispensable part of the religion.

This is still happening today.

Shabestari: Yes, that is right, I agree. To my mind, that was a distortion. We don’t see the Prophet criticising any woman because she is not wearing a veil, nor do any of the other caliphs. The beginning of this distortion came with the Abbasid period. The situation did improve subsequently, but the last 23 years have once more seen an increasing deterioration.

My impression is that many of the curbs on freedom in Muslim societies have been justified on religious grounds and that this has resulted in societies that reject religion, although it is something that is constantly spoken about. It’s a schizophrenic situation.

Shabestari: Yes, that is absolutely correct.

Is it a dangerous situation, do you think?

Shabestari: I see this as very negative. What we are seeing in Islamic countries is that the young people especially have turned their backs on religion completely because this kind of religion, formulated and interpreted as a number of compulsory laws, just is not acceptable. That is the challenge. It is a situation that needs to be rectified. That is what we are doing. What we are saying is that these rules from earlier times, for example, do not represent a basis for faith. They were something specifically intended for a particular society and are only comprehensible within their own historical context. If that were understood in the historical context, it would mean that, in a religious sense, Muslims nowadays could have a different social system in a political and economic sense, different from what it was back then.

Does this then mean that Islam, contrary to the assertion that it is the origin of everything from politics to science, is just another category, one amongst many, which determine how we live our public and private lives?

Shabestari: Back then these were not separate spheres. These distinctions between religion, politics and economics did not exist. This was true almost everywhere in the world. Religion was a sort of great umbrella under which politics and economics were joined. That was also the case with Christianity. Over time we began to create distinctions within religion. Nowadays, people see religion, art, economics and politics as very different things. Nowadays, they are separate entities. Now our task is one of specifying and clarifying, defining what the core of faith is, and what it is that God requires of us as religious beings.

Is it necessary to separate state and religion in order to maintain one’s faith?

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari: Yes. What that means is that religion can become a moral force exerting influence on politics, but when religious and political institutions, such as governments, are put on the same level, or when statements such as: our politics are our religion and our religion is our politics are used; that is not acceptable.

So, some serious thinking needs to be done, so that we may separate these things from one another and find our way back to faith.

Shabestari: That’s right, they must be separated. That would benefit religion.

How can one make this clear to people who believe the opposite, who believe that that is the best way to fulfil and to strengthen their faith? How would you explain it to your students, for example?

Shabestari: Many of my students already understand what I am saying, because the changes that have taken place in Iran have led to a situation in which such statements are now much better understood than would have been the case 15 years ago. People have had to find out the hard way that political measures must always be criticised, that they need to be improved and changed. Those involved in politics are fallible human beings, irrespective of whether they are speaking in a religious context or not. These experiences have shown that one cannot apply the same standards to the religious discussion as to political problems, they are different and require to be dealt with as such – that means that religion and politics must be separated.

My students have understood that if they are going to be able to criticise politics, they have to see politics as the result of human efforts and not as the work of God or as something based on rules to be found in the Koran or Sunnah. Politics must not be sanctified. That is where the problem lies. No political leader should ever be sanctified, irrespective of who it is. Political actions must not be sanctified. But the proper worship of God in the mosque, that must be sanctified. It can function as a bridge, a provider of moral stimuli to the political scene, making sure it does not become amoral.

How can you justify such a statement? If you want to convince a Muslim of this you would have to have to be able to convince him of the compatibility of your statement with the teachings of Islam.

Shabestari: No, I don’t see it that way. We don’t speak like that in this situation, anyone who thinks in the way I do cannot say that his statement must be found in the Koran. This is an educated, independent, enlightened person, living in a modern world, who approaches the Koran and the Sunnah in a rational manner in order to understand them. In other words, my hermeneutics are secular hermeneutics. I try to apply an academic approach to understanding the Koran and the Sunnah. Because I believe in God, because I worship God, this does not mean that I may not use a secular hermeneutics to study the Koran. If you want to know how we make this understandable, the answer is, just in the same way as I have explained it now.

As a devout Muslim I pray and I fast, but as a man I have the right to use my reason when it comes to the Koran and to treat it as a historical document. I must be able to say that these religious precepts had their validity in a particular historical context. I am only able to recognise this historical aspect if I interpret what the Koran says. That is what text interpretation is all about.

We have discussed the separation of state and religion. I come back once more to the point that people are only able to do all these things if they have the freedom to do them. External and internal freedoms are dependent on one another.

Shabestari: That’s right.

That poses a challenge everywhere in the world, but in Islamic countries it is a particular challenge because the social systems and structures, regardless of religion, tend to place emphasis on control. The question is: how can one get this idea of freedom across to the people? It’s a real stalemate situation.

Shabestari: Yes. Exactly.

One would like to get this idea across, but if you have a social system and a state system in place that already restrict freedom, how is it possible to get the freedom message across?

Shabestari: What I want to emphasise finally is my belief that, before we are millions of Muslims in a society, we are people in a society. Before we go to the Koran and the Sunnah to find out what it is they have to say, we need a society, a social system, a social institution, within which to live. Only then does religion enter the equation, in second place. Then I ask myself, what standards should we apply to regulate this very important question of social coexistence.

One cannot say that the answer will be found in the Koran or the Sunnah. Because looked at logically and philosophically, the basis for our living together is order; that has priority. First of all we need to establish a standard by which we can define how we live alongside one another and how to establish order in our society, only then will we be ready to talk about the Koran and the Sunnah. We do not live in a vacuum.

I always say that these ideas and standards that we need to take care of first are nothing other than universal human rights. We need, first of all, to put things right by means of justice and human rights. Societies are made up of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists – all sorts of people. They need to find a way of living together before they need to know what is in the Koran. And the formula for living alongside one another can only be found in human rights.

No one religion, then, can …

Shabestari: … be made dominant by force.

… or set up as a political system?

Shabestari: No, no, no, that’s not on. There are always going to be people who do not want to follow that religion, who want to do it differently, and so forth.

What, then, in your opinion, represents a fair form of government?

Shabestari: In my opinion the only criterion we can use is the measure of respect that is shown for the preservation of universal human rights, though I am aware that the 30 articles of the 1948 declaration are neither interpreted nor treated in the same way in every country. However, I see no other option.

That means that a Muslim can, in good conscience, say: democracy is a fair form of government that I as Muslim …

Shabestari:… accept! Not, that that is what it says in the Koran, but rather, that I, as Muslim, accept it.

Human rights and democracy are in keeping with Islam. Is that a misapprehension?

Shabestari: What do you mean by “in keeping with Islam”?

There is a form of argumentation amongst Muslims along the lines of: this is already in the Koran, or God can’t have anything against this, it’s fair. There are those who say that the shura principle in Islam is democracy, others claim that it is to be found in the spirit of the book.

Shabestari: I believe that Muslims today can have democracy, without having to leave Islam. I tend towards the second of these opinions.

I am interested in finding out how you came to this kind of thinking.

Shabestari: (Laughs) I could write a book about that.

You’ve witnessed momentous events. During the last 30 years you have witnessed the Islamic revolution. That is a unique phenomenon in modern times. It was an exciting time. You must have felt like a pioneer and you were still relatively young in the early stages. Your thinking has evolved. I am interested to find out how much that revolution affected and influenced you and whether there were any crucial experiences that shaped your thinking?

Shabestari: That is a complicated question and one that would require a great deal of time to answer. I can tell you, however, that besides my studies, the things that have had the biggest effect on me are the political changes and events of the last 28 years since the revolution. I came to my present outlook and to my ideas over time and after lots of good and bad experiences. Such experiences have always played a role in the development of my ideas. I believe that our philosophical, religious and theological beliefs cannot be seen as something distinct from our personal experiences. When one comes to a certain way of thinking it has a lot to do with one’s life and with one’s experiences of revolution, politics, etc. I have been very much influenced by my experiences.

You have also had disappointments. There are some who would react by turning their backs on the people, the country or even on their faith. Why do you think it is that you have continued to develop your ideas? What was it that gave you the strength to decide not to leave Iran, not to desert your faith?

Shabestari: From my youth, from the time I was 20, through the revolution, right up till today, almost 40 years, I have always been involved in religion and politics. After the revolution, we began to look upon it as our child, so to speak, raised by our people. That was what it was to us. I could not just say: That’s it! I’m going! Something has happened but it didn’t turn out the way it should have. I couldn’t turn my back on the great Iranian people after all their efforts, a people who have sacrificed so much, even in ancient times and then experienced this revolution.

Revolution was a problem child for us, a child with many defects, who caused us a great deal of trouble and misery in the course of its growing up. I could not just go; my heart was bound to the revolution, as a political happening, and one that strove for freedom. I could not simply withdraw from Islam. I grew up in a religious household. I have always been closely bound up with religion. For these two reasons, thank God, I was never tempted to abandon my faith. I thought long and hard and found my way.

How does one sustain hope under such difficult conditions?

Shabestari: I hope that as long as I live I will not despair. No, I cannot leave my country. That is inconceivable to me. I’ve had offers here in Europe to take on long-term teaching jobs at universities, but I have turned them down. I cannot leave my country. I intend to stay in my country and do my duty. In any case, I am too close to my family.

One holds on to hope, builds it up. The current international debate on Iran worries me. But I hope that things will turn out well.

Interview Fatma Sagir*
Translated from the German by Ron Walker

From Part I and Part II

* Fatma Sagir is a Turkish-born Islam expert and freelance journalist, based in Freiburg, Germany. She is currently engaged in a Ph.D. project about applied Koranic interpretation in Hindu-Muslim dialogue.